Many observers, including myself, have drawn unflattering comparisons between the disastrous administration of Jimmy Carter – considered by many our worst president ever - and that of President Obama. On reflection, I think we’ve been unkind to Mr. Carter. While he had many faults, Carter seldom lied.
On the other hand, President Obama seems to have a complicated relationship with the truth. Most recently – and absurdly- White House spokesman Jay Carney was left to explain that President Obama had indeed met his uncle Onyango Obama– the one who is in the country illegally – despite statements to the contrary made two years ago.
During a deportation hearing considering whether he should be sent home to Kenya, Omar, as he is known, blew the whistle on this particular lie by giving up that he and his nephew had indeed lived together for some time.
Carney explained the obvious whopper by saying that he and the staff had searched Obama’s writings and found no reference to Omar; no one had thought to ask the president about their relationship – for two years! Sure – doing a word search seems much easier than asking “Boss- you know this guy Omar?” You almost have to feel sorry for Carney; he has had to reverse more Oval Office lies than there are “glitches” in Obamacare.
Elsewhere, the parallels between the two administrations – and the two men - are astonishing. Both men ran for president with the weakest of credentials but were nonetheless elected by a country fed up with Republican leadership. Carter convinced the country that he was honest and trustworthy – an appealing pitch after Tricky Dick Nixon turned the country upside-down. Obama ran against the “divisive” George W. Bush, promising to bring the country together.
Carter’s campaigned more on integrity than on policy; his platform was vague in the extreme. Once in office he took a sharp (and for many voters surprising) turn to the left. Similarly, Americans in 2008 knew little about Candidate Obama. His record was murky, with 129 noncommittal “present” votes doing little to illuminate his brief career as an Illinois state legislator. (On 36 of those occasions he was the only legislator to take a pass.)
His campaign focused on popular promises to heal the wounds left over from the Iraq war. Despite the unusual accomplishment of authoring not one but two memoirs by the age of 45, Obama was undefined. Voters ascribed to him the qualities they sought, and congratulated themselves on electing our first black president.
Both men, of course, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – a distinction that Carter deserved more than the newly elected Obama. Both men have been played for fools by Russia’s president Putin, and both have engaged dangerously with Iran. The upshot of Carter’s foolhardy Iran adventures is well known; the results of Obama’s naïf engagement will likely become evident over the next year or two.
Where Obama and Carter diverge is in personal integrity. Americans have been slow to fall out of love with President Obama; we are a fair-minded and trusting people. But- the mounting evidence of chicanery and deception in this White House has become hard to ignore.
The cover-up about Obama’s inconvenient relationship with his uncle is a silly lie, though if you’re pushing immigration reform it’s awkward to have close relative living outside the law. Others, like ones having to do with keeping your insurance if you like it, are far more serious. They indicate a willingness to deceive the American people on big issues – an effort to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible voters. Most important for the White House -- that one came home to President Obama.
Til now, Americans have been reluctant to blame the president (and the White House has been clever at blurring the lines of responsibility) for deceptions concerning the Benghazi murders, the IRS targeting of conservative organizations, the manipulation of jobs numbers, about his mother dying without health insurance, about not hiring lobbyists, about having a transparent White House, about our spying on Americans – the list goes on and on.
That’s why the patently false claims about keeping your insurance and your doctors so damaged the president’s credibility. He personally made those promises to the American people.
The Obama White House has long blamed poor “messaging” for many of the administration’s problems, including the unpopularity of Obamacare, the president’s inability to work with Congress, the unease over his flip-flop on Syria, the stuttering economy and his poor relationship with Israel.
The failures of this leader have been costly – to those millions still out of work, to college kids unable to find jobs and to those losing their health insurance, for starters. The reality of our sub-par recovery is not a matter of parsing words poorly. A more forthright president might decide to reassess his failing policies, and to try a different approach.
Unhappily, that is not likely – there is no Clinton-style “pivot” in the wings. Because, after all, it’s all about the messaging. Note to Obama: the best “messaging” is telling the truth.